Haka: The Legend Of The All Blacks

(28 September 1999)
Television Review By WS Sumpter

After the brouhaha of the Tourism Board fiasco earlier this year it was interesting to see an advert for New Zealand on Irish Television last night. An hour long programme about the All Blacks called "Haka: The Legend Of The All Blacks" made by Adidas and New Zealand Tourism. It screened at 12.30am Sunday night.

It kicked off with the Prime Minister Jenny Shipley looking as smug as squirrel with a nut and who said: "We are a small Nation that often tries to punch above it size."

Sadly throughout the programme the sound and the lip movements were out of sync giving everyone a strange other worldliness.

After Shipley the programme embarked on a soundbite tour of All Blacks past and present explaining the enormous significance of rugby to New Zealand. English and Australian players who had faced the mighty blacks also joined in and helped to explain that in New Zealand rugby was something else altogether.

The well crafted programme went fair skimming through a wide range of topics such the almost spiritual importance of the jersey, the importance of always winning, how the game got to New Zealand, the first touring team the "Natives" of 1898, and so on leading up to the haka, and beyond to marketing and the professional era.

Along the way almost every aspect of New Zealand culture that mattered was stitched together like strands of DNA to some aspect of the game of rugby.

The physical nature of the game was related to the foods of the Islanders, the hard work of the Maori and the pioneering, farming history of the pakehas. The english voice over said while the country faced some racial problems it was provided with a "model combination of culture and creed" through the racial togetherness of rugby.

Keith Quinn illuminated us on the awesome restorative and just powers of the Game.

"There was a strain of people in the 1970s who had a lot of prejudice against samoans. Some people referred to them as FOBs, fresh of the boats, which wasn't very nice," he told us, "but this prejudice stopped the moment it was discovered Samoans could play rugby."


Keith also had his own version of how Maori came to play the game. "I imagine in the past, last century, Maoris watched the pioneers playing the game and soon joined in," he said.

Mrs Shipley made fleeting appearances from her Beehive office sounding more and more like an actor in an advert each time she appeared. In fact she constantly reminded you of that Saatchi bloke who wanted to rename the North and South Islands, and you could almost hear him whispering peak performance, game breaking strategy.

On the subject of the haka Shipley explained how its challenge was like that of New Zealand standing proudly on the sea of overseas investment asking "why have you come here? what are your credentials?" Actually at times you got the impression Shipley had her subjects confused.

Anyway she told the cameras that just as the All Blacks played harmonious team spirited rugby so too was the cultural divide between Maori and Pakeha "seamless". All of which was delivered in such an exuberant burst of pride that you almost thought she believed it.

The All Black who came across best and most interesting was Jonah Lomu whose passionate but zen and thoughtful sentiment for the game came as a breath of fresh air amongst the all the other devotees.

"We have the jersey now but we have to hand it on, all we can do is our best and make the country proud," he said.

Twice Lomu explained that becoming an All Black changed your life for ever, like winning the lotto. This was backed up a sliver haired gentleman who said even in Turkey when he was introduced as a former All Black they knew he was a New Zealand rugby player and that that held importance.

There was then the glorious moment when Lomu bowled over the english players during the 1995 World Cup. Cutting between shots of the try, Lomu explained how Polynesians pride themselves in their physical being and in glorious understatement said that he likes to make his physical presence known on the field.

The poor englishman who was sent backwards head over heels then came on to explain that having watched Lomu knock over burly 18 stone forwards he didn't feel he would have much hope of stopping him himself at a mere 13 stones. In other words he didn't try to stop him and fair play to him under the circumstances.

It befell Otago forward Josh Kronfield to be the only one who ever made any suggestion that the whole rugby thing might, just might, be a bit out of proportion. Kronfield suggested New Zealand had little man's disease and that made us want to go out into the world and beat everyone. Then he said the All Black jersey was possibly a bigger deal than it ought to be.

Josh can't have been listening to John Hart enough who the programmed explained has been careful to instill the tradition of the game into the modern professional All Blacks. This involved meeting the former All Blacks, treasuring the jersey and learning that to lose was to let down the ghosts of All Blacks past, present and future as well as the country, the tradition of the black jersey and themselves, in that order.

All in all you got the distinct impression that all anyone cares about in the slightest in New Zealand is rugby. A straight faced Sean Fitzpatrick took up the aggrandisement of the game and said every single five year old plays rugby and dreams of being an All Black. Which made you feel a bit sorry for the girls, and the wimps and weirdos who dont like the game.

But the highlight of the programme was the transformation of the haka from a ridiculous looking calisthenics exercise into the fearsome war dance it is today.

First up after the half time break were the invincibles waving their arms in front of them like alzhemic old men, and looking pretty stupid performing their 1920s version of the Haka.

The voice over said the haka remained much the same until along came Wayne 'Buck' Shelford who decided if they were going to do it they should do it properly.

Buck took the team to Te Aute College where the students showed the ABs what it was all about. It was electrifying.

You got the impression that the All Blacks suddenly learnt how incredibly intimidating it could be to face a haka, they must have been intimidated by the Te Aute haka which was performed with the ferocity of unstinting pride.

The difference Buck made was obvious and huge. All subsequent shots of the Haka showed its sublime aggression to its fullest and you had to feel sorry for the english toffs that spoke of facing their first ever haka.

Then someone said being an All Black was probably more important that being the Prime Minister, while Keith Quinn said some former All Blacks had gone to prison and done other terrible things but that the former All Black status was higher than any of these misdeeds.

The programme made brief mention that unlike every other rugby playing nation in New Zealand it is not only the upper classes and old school tie who play the game but the working class and middle class too.

Any attempt to explain why New Zealand is so good at rugby was simply met with, that is all anyone cares about. In a sotto voice the narrator explained "it's all a matter of priorities".

Shipley following her own agenda described how the attributes of winning at rugby was what made New Zealand the best country in the world.

"The warrior like nature of the Maori, the fleetfootedness of the Islander and the English tradition of the Pakeha. It is the world beating formula that is New Zealand," she said.

Then it was time for a word from the sponsor and the audience was about to learn that not only were New Zealanders bred to play the game but that we were the most technologically innovative rugby players as well. At last we got to see the Addidas boots being fitted by technicians with a dazzling array of computers and on screen graphics.

Wrapping up the programme various and sundry types commented on how the qualities required for rugby are the qualities of New Zealand and New Zealanders, excellence, respect, playing for the team, winning.

There was no mention of rugby's darker side, but this was no documentary, and besides for any sane non-kiwi person watching the whole thing must have looked utterly bonkers. Ultimately the message was existential; at a time in the world when it is increasingly difficult to understand what the hell the point is New Zealand had decided it was rugby and left it nicely at that. Good advice from the south pacific? Find what you are best at, stick at it and forget the rest.

And why not. Good luck to the All Blacks.